More Later #1
Posted on August 16, 2019
If you’re up for a journey with me, I invite you to read my latest writing. I am developing a longer, fiction (ahem, memoir truth be told) body of work and I’m starting with this entry. Basically, I need the practice/experience of a different sort. Call it cross training.
The working title for this project is, “More Later,” and from time to time I’ll move the story along (fingers crossed); my regular blogs will also be published too.
I’m full of ideas but we will see if I’m up to the task. I appreciate your willingness to be part of this exploration.
You might be a fan or an occasional reader. It’s just nice to know you’re there.
Evelyn – June 1944
The situation was dire. The good news: Evelyn landed the window dresser’s job at Goldman’s Department Store. Hopeful that her taste and talent in fashion would be on display (literally), she now had an excellent chance to be on the retail management fast track. The lousy news was that as a recently single mother of a kindergartener, she had no money for babysitters. Worse still: Evelyn had absolutely no clue whom to ask for help.
The radio was tuned to the debut Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. As she sponged off the last of the dinner dishes, Evelyn was careful not to spray water from the adjacent kitchen sink onto the radio’s yellowed plastic casing. She was always careful to not get the wonky plug wet as had happened too many times before and the cracks on the radio’s plastic body wouldn’t withstand one more bead of moisture she was certain. The inaugural radio show began with the couple sitting at their kitchen table (sun-dappled, undoubtedly). Conjuring Harriet Nelson’s kitchen—where she no doubt managed to scramble Ozzie’s eggs without breaking so much as an eggshell all the while pouring his coffee from the unquestionably shiny percolator—gave Evelyn a sucker punch to her insides. The radio took up most of the coveted space on the bite-sized kitchen’s peeling Formica counter, but she had hastily grabbed the aged electronic as she fled the house she shared with her husband, Harry. Listening to the program, she thought enviably of her own scuffed-up percolator that she left behind. Fled sounds so lurid and dramatic–too hasty. In fact, Evelyn and Harry had spoken of (or at least imagined) and threatened separation so many times that even the idea of divorce was becoming routine. The risk of leaving the marriage no longer terrorized Harry with thoughts of loneliness never mind his worry about draining his already meager bank account. Evelyn knew, of course, that the law required her to prove extreme cruelty, infidelity, or neglect to begin divorce proceedings. And what of their son? Would it even cross Harry’s mind to demand that he have full custody of their little boy? Evelyn’s foggy vision of her future was complicated by maddening laws she didn’t understand and emotions that fluctuated between fear and loathing.
The evening she finally left Harry, she was clenching little Michael by the wrist; he squirmed beneath her hand and whined that her too-tight grip was pinching him. She probably was, and she gently checked herself to reduce the alarm he was understandably experiencing as the two of them each holding awkwardly assembled bundles of possessions darted for her car, Betty the Brown Buick. Betty was a lumbering machine built for endurance despite the dents which, as her sister Grace who had loaned Evelyn the car to hasten the some-day-soon get away reminded Evelyn, were merely cosmetic dings. The trunk was now full and tightly closed. Checking that its latch was engaged was something Evelyn did before starting off on each journey in Betty. This precaution was to ensure that the trunk was never again going to fly open while she tore down the highway. It was the night she left Harry for the first time—when he came home rabidly drunk and as a consequence delusional and had pulled little Michael out of bed just to remind the boy that his dad had the power to make people do whatever he wanted—that Evelyn put Michael on the car’s front bench seat, motioned for him to place his tiny, sleepy ginger-haired head in her lap and then drove to San Francisco to her sister’s hotel. In her urgency, she hadn’t slammed down the trunk lid and Michael’s favorite stuffed animal, Mr. Paws The Teddy Bear, flew out of the car along with Evelyn’s sweater and a couple of spare blankets. This time, all contents had been secured within Betty’s yawning trunk. The two weary passengers and their belongings found their way to an itty-bitty studio apartment on Telegraph Avenue and 27th Street in Oakland. Grace had come up with first- and last-months’ rent and insisted the landlord put a fresh coat of paint on the thin walls. The smell of the drying paint lingered too long. Evelyn had a headache for days.
As the radio show premiered, Evelyn poured herself a neat, lady-like portion of bourbon, put her throbbing legs up onto the seat of one of only two red vinyl kitchen chairs that came with the sparsely furnished studio. Naturally, she sat on the other one. Her early days dressing windows at Goldman’s Department Store were unquestionably the most strenuous physical labor she had experienced since her days teaching ballet to mouthy, precocious youngsters. It wasn’t so much the hefty loads of clothes she had to carry that exhausted her, but the secretive means of transporting the bundles to the windows without bumping into customers. She was mastering the art of being invisible.
Young Michael was now scooting his wooden truck back and forth on the thin carpet as he concentrated on keeping his truck noises soft enough to not disturb his mother. Michael knew the difference between weekend Evelyn and the workweek one. He was become accustomed to married Evelyn and now the single version. He was never scared that his mother would strike him. That was predictably his father’s way of getting the message across. But Evelyn could scream at him and make him cry. Michael hated to cry; if his father saw him, he would just as easily berate the child as haul off and smack him. He heard his dad call his mom a hot head, which he thought was funny because her head never felt hot to him.
The floor where he played was so close to the tiny kitchen, with its two-burner hot plate and squat icebox that he sensed he was crowding her. He had hoped that she would make a comment about his toy truck, or better to play with him—get down on the carpet and make truck noises too. But he could see that Evelyn’s eyes were closed now as she took another sip and the drink started to warm her insides and soothe her legs a bit. For just a couple of minutes, and Michael thought she was just taking a nap, she was comforted by the alcohol and how it opened up her dreams and allowed her to pretend, however briefly, that she was anywhere else but here.
Evelyn had arranged for Mrs. Cozzo on the floor above to babysit tomorrow afternoon. She would find out if Mrs. Cozzo could take care of Michael for the next two weeks—just after school—until she came up with a more permanent solution. With a plan in place, however temporary, Evelyn opened her eyes and reached out to Michael. With one hand she mussed his silky hair; with the other hand, she poured herself another drink.
Evelyn – July 1944
At Goldman’s store, Evelyn mostly stayed behind the glass. But her work was right out in front of folks, in plain sight of pedestrians and people driving by. Evelyn’s transparent cage perched about three feet off the sidewalk, on the sides of a block-large art deco building, and ever so wide. And, there were at least six, if not more, of these cavernous glass boxes. The sides of the cubicles could be rearranged to gain or to reduce the amount of space required to create a story—a narrative that was played out by stationary plastic models mounted on unbending steel rods. It was Evelyn’s job to dress the mannequins and position their heads, torsos, and limbs in such a way that the garments they wore depicted movement or, at the very least, allowed the fabrics to reflect a soft, shimmer of light from the overhead bluish-casting harsh store lights or at night to reflect a bit of gleam from the adjacent and more forgiving street lamps. This was an era for strolling down the city’s avenues. It was brilliant merchandising–catching people’s attention and enticing them to imagine what turn their own lives could take given the right sartorial purchase. Promenading took place during the day and into the evening hours. Often there were more passersby strolling up and down the sidewalks than could be found driving in their cars. Just to be safe, parking spots were plentiful and convenient. Pull over! Come inside! Stores presented their goods by beckoning the potential customer with glamour or at the very least with the promise of something new—a bit of sizzle and sass. No one needed what was displayed in the store windows, especially with a world war raging, but it was the promise of possibilities that compelled the shopper to come in and have a look. If not at Goldman’s, then at nearby I. Magnin or even the more conventional Capwells. One thing was made clear to Evelyn on her first day of work and each day after that: Get the clientele to come into Goldman’s. The saleswomen would handle the rest.
Every movement Evelyn made to create her fantastical window displays was there for the viewing. Pedestrians would stare into the windows as she worked. It wouldn’t occur to the viewer that Evelyn was tormented by her audience. She summoned up such fortitude to ignore them, the witnesses to her every action. Judging her, perhaps. The work itself was routine and repetitive, mundane really. Yet, she felt the weight of her every action and her resulting performance on her thin and fragile shoulders. It was being observed without knowing who her audience really was that relentlessly distracted her. But if the creative momentum took hold, she could be all right. She could find her footing and continue on with the job of creating a story that would be inventive enough to shift the viewer’s gaze from her to her mannequins. It was then that her magical ability to distract and deflect scrutiny served her well. She was handed, or rather, told by the head buyer for the store, from where to gather the clothes. The garments were scooped up from the sportswear section in ladies’ wear if it were spring or Evelyn floated through the haute couture floor to gingerly, delicately scoop up the full-skirted gowns, wrapping them in tissue paper to preserve all their sparkles, feathers, and hand-embroidered embellishments. This would be in the early days of the fall season of opera and symphony openings. Winter’s windows were the most physically demanding she eventually discovered because of the sheer heft of the camel hair coats, alpaca jackets, and the furs—all of which were hanging on heavy wooden hangars. Those furs were like herding animals. Once placed on the mannequins, the sables and the particularly the foxes had to be stroked with the grain so as to minimize static and shine up the pelts. She had to take inordinate care with these outrageously priced coats and stoles. Plus, they had to speak volumes above the garments they partially covered. For those dresses, too, were for sale. Artistic displays enticed the passersby with the promise of fantasy to be sure. But the window stage sets were only effective, the owners of Goldman’s Department Store incessantly reminded her, if people came inside. Getting shoppers through the revolving doors was her job. Once they entered the department store, the sales people’s job was to close the deal.
In the employees’ lunchroom, Evelyn met her first friend at Goldman’s. Jean Barth was a statuesque brunette who pumped up her height with her hair in a French twist and her feet in black crocodile pumps. Her laugh was hard won but if she found the conversation amusing, the reward of hearing her throaty, lush giggle was worth the effort.
“So, you’re the new window girl?” Jean had approached Evelyn and planted herself directly in front of her careful to not let her cigarette’s ash fall onto Evelyn’s plate of potato salad.
“Oh, yes, that’s right. I’m Evelyn Higgins. Nice to meet you,” she replied putting out her hand to shake Jean’s. Evelyn tried to straighten her shoulders but the effort was too exhausting.
“Did Mike show you where everything is? You know, like the little girl’s room, where to clock in, the whole bit?” Jean smiled with such ease that Evelyn felt heady and her stomach muscles eased their grip on her worried guts. But, the mere mention of Mike threw her. Evelyn had spent her days distracted from her son’s care. Hearing his name, even referring to someone else, drew her inward to thoughts of how he might be spending his day at school or more critically if Mrs. Cozzo would be late again to pick him up. Of course, she was being ridiculous, she thought. But the thought occurred to her that maybe Mrs. Cozzo drank a little too much. Wait, Evelyn thought. Jean must be referring to Michael O’Malley, the store’s general manager. But the conversational patter deadened if for only a second. Long enough, though, for Jean to experience the vacuum-sealed reduction of air in the room. For Evelyn, separated each workweek from her young son, the sound of his name punctured her heart. She only called him Michael, never the shorter version Mike, as if pronouncing one more syllable allowed her a bit more time with him. And, if she could say his name aloud, it felt as if he were in the room with her.
“Everything alright, Ev?” Jean continued. “You seem somewhere else at the moment. Probably thinking about the new line of sportswear that Mike is trying to showcase in those windows of yours, I imagine. O’Malley is all about the sales pitch.”
Evelyn hadn’t given Jean permission to be called by her nickname. She much preferred to see who and who was not worthy, in her own mind, of using such familiarity with her. When Jean used it, though, when she heard “Ev” from this self-assured colleague, a possible in-the-future friend, she enjoyed how it sounded to her. She lived alone with her young son, who of course called her mom. She rarely heard her first name spoken by adults.
“First-month jitters, I guess,” Evelyn finally answered Jean. “I’m so rattled by all the little things—the accessories are on one floor; the shoes are on another. And, Michael, Mike, talks so fast! I’m going to need a friend, Jean. Which department are you in?” Evelyn started to put on her coat and to check her pockets for bus change before clocking out.
“You’ll find me in payroll. I’m everyone’s best friend!” Jean laughed.